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Milk and the Maiden

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By Cheryl Young

Ruth Klahsen is the vibrant, energetic artisanal cheese maker who is the owner and driving force behind Montforte Dairy. Formerly a professional chef at The Stratford Chef’s School, she left what she described as “the best job possible job for a chef” for the unknown entrepreneurial waters of becoming an independent cheese maker. Her rationale was like that of many self employed business people: more control over one’s time, the opportunity to make a living on your own terms, and the chance to make a difference in the world around you. Also important to Ruth was the window of opportunity she saw very soon to be free of the encumbrances of a “steady job” and therefore ready to play with grandchildren. Now the previously mentioned grandchildren had not yet materialized at time of writing, but Ruth is clearly a person who plans for and expects the most positive outcome in most if not all things.

Which is just one of the qualities that made my half day visit to her operation in Millbank Ontario such a joy. Here is a woman who cares so deeply about the quality of her product that she literally throws away thousands of dollars of cheese if it does not meet her high standards for taste and appearance. But she is a good business woman as well; due to her training as a chef, she has an excellent handle on her food and shipping costs and has reasonable and attainable goals for total sales and profit margins.

One of the realities that hold pioneers like Ruth back from realizing their visions as quickly as they might is the lack of clear roadmaps to follow. There is no recent history of artisanal cheese making in Ontario, so she learns as she goes. This trial and error approach has one caveat: food safety. Ruth comes from a family of doctors and so is even more aware than most of the importance of extreme care in the handling of her raw materials. When I asked her what was the worst that could happen, she said, quite seriously, that she could kill someone. Sobering thought. In fact, 90% of cheese making she says quite firmly, is scrubbing!

So what does Ruth experiment with? Like a wine maker, she tests various combinations of flavor and aroma, resulting in fragrant and delicious cheeses such as Piacere, a creamy white round coated with rosemary, savoury, chili pepper and juniper berries. Or the Pepato Secco, a pecorino fresco, aged for 45 days plus, this cheese is hand rubbed with olive oil, peppercorns and turned lovingly for a softer texture and richer flavours. Her soft cheeses are wonderful on a toasted bagel: Sheepdip, a soft sheep's milk cheese spread w/sundries tomatoes, capers and hot peppers or Nika, with herbs and organic garlic scapes. Fabulous on sandwiches or canapés.

Currently Ruth is just producing sheep’s’ milk cheese, turning over 400 litres of sweet sheep’s milk from the Amish sheepherders in the surrounding countryside. When I visited her mid morning, she was producing a delectable looking fresh ricotta. Her load was relatively light that day – production would be significantly higher towards the end of February when the ewes are lambing and there is much more work to be done.

Long considered to be woman’s work on the farm, cheese making requires patience, an almost reverential respect for the milk and a commitment to the careful laying down of the cheese for the flavour to be developed and enhanced. It cannot be rushed or made to fit your own timetable. In fact, when Ruth recently taught a cheese making course at the Stratford Chef’s School, she found that, compared to their male counterparts, the women were much more in tune with the relaxed and almost Zen like process of cheese making. Eventually, cheese makers like Ruth hope that there will be an Ontario based apprentice program which will not only advance cheese making standards but ensure a heritage of a passionate and skilled artisanal cheese making in this province.

Ruth sells her wonderful cheese at her stall at the St. Lawrence Market, North Building, three Saturdays out of four, every month, until her product sells out, which tends to be somewhat early, given her popularity. Her products can also be found at fine wineries in Niagara including Inn on the Twenty, Henry of Pelham, and Hilldebrand. As well, Jamie Kennedy is one of her biggest supporters in the restaurant business here in Toronto. Some of the retailers of Monforte cheeses include All The Best Fine Foods at Yonge and Summerhill, The Healthy Butcher on Queen West, La Fromagerie on College, and The Cheese Boutique in Toronto's west end.

To find out more about Monforte Cheeses, call 1.877.437.5553
or visit www.monfortedairy.com.



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